The voice on the phone was familiar, if a bit weak.
It’s been a tough year, John Wooden said, reluctantly, because he doesn’t like to make a fuss. He was in his Encino condominium, and had just been asked about the flu he’d fought off in January and the bone-breaking tumble he’d taken soon after.
“It’s been a bit hard, but I’m getting better,” he assured. “Now, if Val’s team performs to their abilities this week, that would put a smile on my face.”
Val would be Valorie Kondos Field, coach of the ninth-ranked UCLA women’s gymnastics team, which today opens its quest for another national title at the NCAA championships in Athens, Ga.
Wooden seemed more concerned about gymnastics than his own frail health. He said he planned to spend today waiting for word on how the Bruins fare. “It’s because of my friendship with Val,” he said. “We’re just very close.”
As with all of the men who followed him at Westwood, it is widely known that Wooden keeps in good contact with men’s basketball Coach Ben Howland. But few know that of all the coaches at UCLA, the iconic Wooden’s tightest bond is not with Howland, but with Kondos Field.
She dotes on him: calling, driving him to restaurants or appointments. Or, along with her husband Bobby Field, UCLA assistant athletic director, driving to dinners at the home of Wooden’s daughter, Nan.
He dotes on her: mentoring, coaching, and giving a shoulder to lean on. Most of all, providing perspective.
“If we’d never met, I might not be coaching right now,” says Kondos Field, a 48-year-old spitfire who in the anonymity of women’s college sports has guided her team to five national titles. “More than that, if I’d never met coach Wooden and become his friend, I’d know a lot less about life.”
After a few years as an assistant, Kondos Field took over the gymnastics team at UCLA in 1990, never having been a head coach. She’d grown up a ballet dancer, not a gymnast. She couldn’t do a handstand, but she was a master of teaching fluidity and flow. With her artist’s sensibility, she quickly grew so disillusioned with college sports’ laser-like fixation on winning -- simply to gain bragging rights -- that she nearly quit.
Then, in the mid-1990s, she picked up a copy of one of Wooden’s books and, as many readers of this column surely have, poured over his simple, profound, old-school maxims.
There’s nothing stronger than gentleness.
Never try to be better than someone else, learn from others, never cease to be the best you can be.
Hoping to learn more, she invited him to practice. He says he immediately grew enamored with the power, grace and precision of gymnastics. “A revelation,” he recalled. “What fine, fine athletes. And wonderful academically, which pleases me greatly.”
Soon, Wooden became a regular at the meets, usually sitting in the second row of the hard benches at Pauley Pavilion. To get there he’d hitch a ride to Westwood with a former player or with Nan. Once, when he couldn’t find anyone to take him, he hopped in his old Ford Taurus and drove through a hard rain, all alone.
When he saw that Kondos Field hit it off with Nan, he grew even closer to the gymnastics coach, treating her like family. When she could she’d just come over to his condo to hang out, knitting while he watched TV, asking him questions about coaching, and about his life, his parents, growing up in Indiana and Nell, his beloved late wife.
“She became,” he says, “something like a granddaughter to me.”
This year, whenever he wasn’t ill or injured, the old coach came to Westwood for Bruins meets, sitting near the scorekeepers, keenly attentive. After the team suffered a painful loss to Utah, he used his walker to slowly sidle next to Kondos Field. “We all have peaks and valleys,” he reminded, giving her a hug. “Stay on an even keel, Val. I’m just pleased you and your team held their heads high.”
This weekend, discussing Georgia and a run at a national title over dinner, it was more of the same.
“He always put things in the proper place,” Kondos Field said the other day. “He’s always steady. . . . Always supportive. Always talking about caring for others. Always giving . . . no matter how his year has gone.”
Nice to know that the great coach is still teaching.
Kurt Streeter can be reached at email@example.com. To read previous columns by Streeter, go to latimes.com/streeter.